I never thought too hard about death, certainly not the death of my unborn children. (Illustration: Jun Cen)
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I Was Flying to Montana to Bury My Son

On a plane ride over the Mountain West, a grieving father retraces his adventurous youth and searches for solace in the rugged landscapes that molded him

We lifted off from Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a warm spring morning, rising out of the concrete grid, over the brown river flanked by cottonwoods leafing out in green, then north above a range of barren mounds and sandy arroyos dotted with piñon. 

Somewhere down below, my wife rode north toward Montana in the back seat of her parents’ car, cradling the body of our boy. Our only child. She and I had bought tickets to sit together on this plane. She had just given birth and could not be expected to sit two days in a car as it brought the casket and the child to the woods near the Canadian border where she was raised, a better resting place than the weedy brown graveyards of Albuquerque, a city in which we didn’t expect to stay long. We wanted our boy at home.

But as the departure day approached, C. realized that we had bought the ticket for Mother’s Day, and she couldn’t bear the thought of spending it away from him. I couldn’t bear the thought of two days confined to the car with his embalmed body. As a result, I flew alone, taking a window seat over the dry mountains. Our first decision as parents was what to do with his body. Although I still hadn’t changed a diaper, I had changed his ice packs. I was 47 years old.

When our son died on the same day he was born, my first thought—my only thought—was that it was I who had killed him. It was simple logic: I was his father. My one duty was to protect my son, and he was dead, therefore I’d done wrong. Clearly we had chosen the wrong midwife, doctor, hospital, procedures. But when that brand of blame didn’t hold up to medical reason, I plumbed for failure deeper in my past. “I should have had children 20 years ago,” I sobbed. “I should have had eight kids in case some of them died.” I blamed my wife for wanting to wait. I blamed myself for allowing us to wait. Maybe if I hadn’t taken this job, we’d have had the baby elsewhere, and he would have lived. The whole of my existence had never felt so puny, pointless.

When I was 20 or so, I developed such an acute terror of flying that tears would well as the engines revved on the tarmac and I envisioned my death, the news of it delivered to my parents. Over the years I somehow transformed this fear into naps, and that morning in Albuquerque, I closed my eyes and dozed off as we hurled down the runway, waking ten minutes later to the pleasant ding, the stewardess announcing that we had reached cruising altitude. 

After a few minutes staring out the window, I opened a book. I was halfway through The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which I’d read years before. I returned to it now, as a father. I felt the man’s devotion to the boy, his sole desire to keep his son alive. I knew how he’d give his own life for his son’s and why he saved the last bullet not for himself but for the boy, to spare him from things more awful than death. 

I read half an hour, then set the book down. I looked out the window. To the west lay a familiar landscape, the red-rock canyons of the Four Corners. I couldn’t tell if we were in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, or Utah, but the carved sandstone and juniper slopes broken up by flat green ranches were the very topography of my life. I craned my neck for a point of reference. There were no towns, just the occasional farmhouse or mobile home on a gravel road winding up a dry wash. 

Then a range of snowcapped peaks thrust up from the desert. I felt a thrill—joy, actually—something I hadn’t felt in weeks, like the sensation you get when you run into an old friend who you’ve missed for years, when his features come into focus. There, the jagged pyramid of Mount Tukuhnikivatz, the blunt ridge of Mount Peale, and the lumpy mound of Mount Mellenthin. I recognized Mann’s Peak, Mount Waas, and Mount Tomasaki of the La Sals on the border of Utah and Colorado. I’d been atop almost all of them two decades ago, working as a guide. I’d seen a bear and herds of elk. I’d swum in Medicine Lake, glissaded down the col below Laurel Pass, toured the North Woods on skis. I had arrived on the far slopes of the La Sals, in Moab, at age 22, when some hitchhikers I picked up suggested it, and I ended up staying for 11 years. Once I’d tried to climb Mellenthin with my dog, but the gales of wind across a bare ridge forced us to lie down, then turn around, only to find a tree fallen across the road. We abandoned the truck, walked to the nearest pavement, hitched a ride home.  

Now below me I saw the sheer walls of the Dolores River, the first big river I floated, which launched my guiding jobs. A decade later the river had been my first magazine assignment, and I could see where it flowed into the Colorado, and I remembered my typically ill-conceived expedition to kayak it at extremely low water. My girlfriend and I broke up the day before, but we decided to take the trip together anyway, a decision regretted by none more than our third paddler, who endured two nights of us fighting and crying. 

We flew beyond the La Sals and crossed the Colorado, a river I had floated a hundred times or more, and I watched it drain toward Moab, where I’d spent the entirety of my first book advance, $10,000, on the down payment for an acre of cottonwoods and tumbleweeds with a 1965 single-wide trailer. The land abutted a creek that flowed down from the springs and snows of the La Sals. I’d written my second book in the front room of that trailer, breaking on the hour to gaze out the wide window that I called the windshield at the stormclouds gathering around Tukuhnikivatz. In the spring, in sandy soil, I planted a catalpa and a sycamore that 15 years later cast shade on that writing room.

The plane floated on, over the mouth of the Green River’s Desolation Canyon, a windswept wilderness where I estimate I slept more than 50 nights. That was the canyon that originally hooked my imagination, a city boy from the suburbs of Los Angeles, reading Ed Abbey tell of its grand loneliness, its 86 miles without roads or other signs of civilization. 

Then the tortured narrows of the San Rafael Swell where, coming home from a book event in Salt Lake City, I’d rolled my truck and walked away unhurt except for the indignity of seeing all my unsold first editions littered across the dirt road. Years later I led three-week explorations of its slots, where my group once slaughtered a sheep with a hunting knife and wrapped its meat in cotton sheets and roasted it overnight in an underground pit of hot rocks. In those days I was teaching teenagers to climb and cook, paddle and pack, assuming without saying so that one day I’d teach those same skills in these same canyons to my own child.

I cried at the window. First for my boy and then for myself, for that tiny creature trotting happily across the land like an ant, unaware of the fate that lay ahead. Mixed with it was a kind of joy, a love for all the beauty and laughter and freedom and fortune that I’d found below, for the blessed life I’d been allowed in those canyons and on those mountains, of actually getting paid to navigate these magical places and then commissioned as a writer to satisfy that same sort of curiosity and wanderlust.

Back then I wrestled with life’s lightness, the sense that nothing mattered, nothing was real—all felt like simulation or commodity—and I spent years seeking the authentic amid the artificial. I weep for the innocence of my younger self, his not knowing the heaviness of life. But I also cheer for the unsubstantial burden on his feet and of his spirit, a lightness I may never know again. In those years of swashbuckling across wilderness, even as I risked my life, I never thought too hard about death, certainly not the death of my children. I was always afraid of dying, always felt I had so many things I still needed to do, but the only way to function on cliffs and in whitewater was to block that fear. Like any character in a book, my former self did not know what lay ahead. As for that heaviness: in the coming days, I would lay my baby boy in a hole and cover him with soil. 

Was it foolish to have been so carefree? That’s the question fate forces upon us. We know, even if we don’t think about it, that our lives will end, as will the lives of everyone we have ever known and loved. A Zen teacher said: life is like getting into a boat and sailing out to sea, where eventually the boat will capsize and we will drown. But what to do with that knowledge?

Years earlier, C. had her charts read in Nepal by a fortune-teller named Dipendra who specialized in matchmaking. He grimaced; of the 34 characteristics deemed essential to a good marriage, C. and I were compatible in only seven. “For arranged marriage, I would not recommend,” he said, then smiled. “But since is a love match, I think OK.” He also warned that I was destined to have a terrible accident. We laughed about Dipendra’s curse over the years, and when I launched off a three-foot ledge on my mountain bike, sailed over the bars, and bounced on my head like a pencil, tumbling to my feet with only a slight case of whiplash, we wondered—hoped—that the worst disaster was behind us.

Now as a childless 47-year-old traveling to my son’s funeral, I wondered, Should I have done things differently? Should I have spent more time preparing the soil for burial and less time planting it with shade trees? More time learning to grieve and less time pretending I would never have to? More time contemplating death and less time careening headfirst down steep snowfields? I had lived as fully as I knew how, and even now, after my path led me to sorrow more devastating than anything I could have imagined, I still didn’t know that I would—or could—do anything differently.

The plane passed north into less familiar territory. It’s true that I had denied death. My life had been good. Even beautiful. I had never thought too hard about the afterlife, but since my son’s death, I’d come to believe in it, not because the facts had changed but because I needed it. My wife and I had created a spirit, and I needed to believe that we would reunite with him somehow. I was not suicidal. But that familiar fear of death was gone. I had done all that I wanted to do, and it had not ended like I hoped, but still there was nothing more that effort alone could bring me. Destiny was not in my hands. As the plane began its descent back to earth, I felt for the first time that I was ready to die. 

A year after our son died, my wife and I drove down to West Texas, bumping along dirt roads by the big bend of the Rio Grande. We camped out there, hours from pavement, not many people in sight. Wildflowers ignited in purple and white and yellow. The cacti blossomed. It was cloudy but hot. 

We had another baby on the way, a second son, six months along. We talked to him more than we had talked to his brother. We knew that, for some, life in the womb is the only life they get. Each morning I sang to him. To his brother I had sung, “May God bless you and keep you always, may your dreams all come true,” but to him I sang, “Don’t let the sunshine fool you, don’t let the bluebirds tool you.” We loved him with joy and terror. 

One day we climbed up a steep trail to gaze down into a sheer cliff narrows where the river snaked through. When we returned to the river bottom, we sneaked through a gap in the willows and found the Rio Grande shimmering over a gravel bar, pouring into a deep hole. We stripped and leaped in, floated in the cool eddy, naked and alone in what felt like the wilds. There was no wall, no signs of a border. We crept across the gravel, the current pushing at our calves, and nudely smuggled our baby into Mexico and back. The clouds dissolved, and the sun baked us dry. One last green bottle of beer floated in the ice chest.

Isn’t life gorgeous? Aren’t we blessed?

Sometimes it seems that we are.

Filed To: FamilyKidsAir TravelMontanaOutside Features
Lead Illustration: Jun Cen
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